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Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site
Val-Kill Cottage
New York

Val-Kill Cottage, home of Eleanor Roosevelt
Val-Kill Cottage, home of Eleanor Roosevelt
Bill Urbin for
National Park Service

“Val-Kill is where I used to find myself and grow.  At Val-Kill I emerged as an individual.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt

Val-Kill, the retreat about two miles from Springwood, the “big house” at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Hyde Park, was the only place that Eleanor Roosevelt ever could call her own.  In the large, comfortable “Val-Kill Cottage” preserved at the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, she could entertain whoever she wanted, stay up reading as late as she liked, and be alone if she chose. The site contains two main buildings, Val-Kill Cottage and the Stone Cottage.  Originally built as a factory that housed Val-Kill Industries, Val-Kill Cottage soon became Eleanor’s cottage. Eleanor Roosevelt was a highly dynamic, broadly effective, and controversial first lady. While her husband was alive, she used the cottage as her personal retreat.  When he died, she made it her permanent home.  An active partner in FDR’s political career, she became an important Democratic Party leader and humanitarian in her own right after his death.  President Harry S Truman, who appointed her the United States representative to the newly formed United Nations in 1945, called her the “First Lady of the World.”  Deeply committed to equal justice for all, she was proudest of her participation in the creation the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948.

Born in New York City on October 11, 1884, to the wealthy and aristocratic Roosevelt family, Anna Eleanor was a shy, quiet child. Orphaned by the age of 10, she lived with her brothers in her grandmother’s strictly run household until she went away to school at the age of 15. She thrived at Allenswood boarding school in England and gained her love of travel and compassion for the oppressed there.  Her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, escorted her down the aisle at her marriage to her distant cousin, handsome, young Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1905.  Early in her marriage, Eleanor took on the expected role of a proper society wife and mother to her five children. The family split their time between a brownstone in New York City and the house at Hyde Park.  Sara, Franklin’s strong-willed mother, presided over the Hyde Park household until her death in 1941.  As Franklin Roosevelt’s political career advanced, taking them to Albany and Washington, DC, Eleanor became increasingly involved in public life.

The attack of polio that transformed Franklin Roosevelt’s life in 1921 profoundly affected Eleanor’s life as well.  Sara wanted her son to retire to Hyde Park, but Eleanor and FDR’s political advisor, Louis Howe, thought it important for him to stay in politics.  Howe pushed Eleanor to keep Roosevelt’s name and ideals alive by participating in Democratic Party politics herself.  In 1922, she joined the Women's Division of the Democratic State Committee.  Painfully shy, she forced herself to make speeches and official appearances and discovered, to her surprise, that she was not only was good at politics but that she liked it.  The society matron who once opposed women's suffrage, was soon actively supporting that and other liberal causes.

Eleanor's sleeping porch in Val-Kill Cottage
Eleanor's sleeping porch in Val-Kill Cottage
Bill Urbin for
National Park Service

Late in the summer of 1924, while picnicking at one of the family’s favorite spots next to the small Fall Kill (Valley Stream, in Dutch), Eleanor lamented that she and her friends from the Democratic State Committee would not be able to come to Hyde Park after Sara Roosevelt closed the big house for the winter.  Franklin suggested that she and her friends build a cottage nearby, where they could visit year-round. Eleanor and her two closest friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, enthusiastically accepted the offer.  Franklin gave them lifetime use of several acres of the Hyde Park estate and happily helped architect Henry Toombs design the Dutch Colonial Stone Cottage.  Marion and Nancy immediately moved into the cottage. Eleanor visited her friends on weekends and holidays.

In 1926, the three women, along with Caroline O’Day, another friend from the Democratic State Committee, established an experimental furniture factory at Val-Kill.  They hoped to train local people in craft skills that they could use to supplement their income from agriculture without having to move to the city.  The high quality reproduction Early American furniture Val-Kill Industries produced did well in the 1920s.  The original two-story factory acquired a number of additions, including a forge, whose purpose was to create reproduction pewter pieces.

When Franklin became president in 1932, Eleanor was comfortable in politics and refused to accept the traditional role assigned to the president’s wife.  She became her husband’s “eyes, ears, and legs,” visiting the bread lines and coal mines that he could not and bringing back first hand reports on how the New Deal was affecting ordinary people.  She broke precedent by holding her own press conferences and candidly expressed her opinions, which were often controversial.  My Day, the popular syndicated newspaper column she wrote six days a week from 1935 to the year she died, reached millions of Americans, who felt they knew her personally.  During World War II, she visited wounded American soldiers in hospitals in England, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean.

Eleanor Roosevelt was an early champion of civil rights.  African American educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, whom she met in the 1920s, first helped her understand the difficulties and discrimination black people encountered every day.  Eleanor played an important role in the creation of an executive order that prohibited discrimination in industries engaged in military production early in World War II.  She supported the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and joined the board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  More liberal that her husband in some areas, Eleanor commented that she sometimes “acted as a spur, even though the spurring was not always wanted.”

Eleanor expanded Val-Kill during her husband’s presidency, when Roosevelt frequently hosted informal outdoor dinners there for foreign heads of states and other guests visiting Hyde Park.  When Val-Kill Industries closed in 1936, she renovated and enlarged the factory into Val-Kill Cottage, her personal retreat. Val-Kill Cottage grew to contain two living rooms, a dining room, seven bedrooms, a dormitory for young guests, two large porches downstairs, and a sleeping porch upstairs, as well as a small caretakers’ apartment.  The Roosevelts also added swimming pools, a picnic ground, gardens, and a stable for the horses she loved to ride.  Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman made their home at nearby Stone Cottage until 1947.

When a reporter asked her about her plans after her husband’s death in April 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt answered, “The story is over,” but she was wrong.  In December 1945, President Truman appointed her as the first U.S. delegate to the newly organized United Nations General Assembly.  There, Eleanor put her attention and leadership skills toward helping to found UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. She became chair of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. She supported and helped edit the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted unanimously, with some abstentions, in 1948.  She thought this was the most important work of her life.

Eleanor Roosevelt's bedroom
Eleanor Roosevelt's bedroom
Bill Urbin for
National Park Service

Eleanor turned the main house at Hyde Park over to the United States, as FDR intended, but she kept Val-Kill, purchasing the land from the Roosevelt estate and making Val-Kill Cottage her permanent home.  She continued the tradition of casual entertaining, hosting world dignitaries such as Winston Churchill, Marshal Tito, Haile Selassie, and Jawaharlal Nehru.  Democratic Party politicians came seeking her advice and support, including presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy.  She loved having large family gatherings at the cottage, including as many as possible of her 22 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Every summer 150 youngsters from the interracial Wiltwyck School for troubled city boys would visit for picnics, games, and readings of Kipling’s Just So Stories by Eleanor herself. When not busy entertaining, Eleanor enjoyed quiet time alone to read, keep up correspondence, and work on her continued fight for social justice.  She died in 1962, mourned by millions of people as the “First Lady of the World.”

Val-Kill Cottage was divided into four rental units after Eleanor’s death. In 1975, concerned citizens organized a drive to preserve the site from development. In May 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the bill creating the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site “to commemorate . . . the life and work of an outstanding woman in American History.”

Val-Kill Cottage is a large rambling, stucco-covered, L-shaped building, reflecting its piece-meal construction during its career as a factory.  Stone Cottage is a one and one-half-story fieldstone building designed in the Dutch Colonial Revival style that Franklin Roosevelt loved.  The first floor contains a living room with a ceiling open to the rafters and a massive fieldstone fireplace, a dining room, kitchen, den, bedroom, bath, and laundry.  There are three bedrooms and a bath upstairs.  A few minor alterations occurred in 1950, but the house has since then remained largely unaltered.  Also on the grounds is the Dollhouse, which Eleanor had moved from its original location near the main house for the use of her grandchildren.

Plan your visit

The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located on Route 9G in Hyde Park, NY, about 90 miles north of New York City and 70 miles south of Albany. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos.

Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site is open daily May-October from 9:00am to 5:00pm.  From November to April, Val-Kill is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Tours of Val-Kill Cottage and Stone Cottage (if not in use) are given Thursday thru Monday at 1:00pm and 3:00pm.  The site is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.  An entrance fee is charged for tours. The grounds are open daily year-round from dawn to dusk.  For more information visit the National Park Service Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site website or call 800-337-8474.
The site is the subject of an online lesson plan, First Lady of the World: Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home pageVal-Kill, the Val-Kill Factory, and the  Stone Cottage have all been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.  Visit the National Park Service Virtual Museum Exhibit on Eleanor Roosevelt: American Visionary.  Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site is also featured in the National Park Service Places Where Women Made History Travel Itinerary.

Today the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill, a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization, uses the site it was formed to save as a living memorial, a center for the exchange of ideas, and a catalyst for change and the betterment of the human condition.

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